US airline Continental and two of its employees go on trial this week for the manslaughter of 113 people who died in a Concorde crash that put an end to the dream of supersonic travel.
A former French civil aviation official and two senior members of the Concorde program will be tried on the same charge from Tuesday in a court near Paris, with proceedings expected to last four months.
The New York-bound jet crashed in a ball of fire shortly after take-off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000, killing all 109 people on board – most of them Germans – and four hotel workers on the ground.
The blazing Concorde demolished an airport hotel when it hurtled to the ground in a crash that marked the beginning of the end for the world’s first – and thus far only – regular supersonic jet service.
Air France and British Airways grounded their Concordes for 15 months after the crash and, after a brief resumption, finally put an end to supersonic commercial service in 2003.
The plane, born of British and French collaboration, embarked on its maiden commercial flight in 1976. Only 20 were manufactured: six were used for development and the remaining 14 flew mainly trans-Atlantic routes at speeds of up to 2,170 kilometres per hour.
A French accident inquiry concluded in December 2004 that the Paris disaster was partly caused by a strip of metal that fell on the runway from a Continental Airlines DC-10 plane that took off just before the supersonic jet.
The Concorde, most of whose German passengers were due to board a Caribbean cruise ship in New York, ran over the super-hard titanium strip, which shredded one of its tyres, causing a blow-out and sending debris flying into an engine and a fuel tank.
Continental is charged over a failure to properly maintain its aircraft, along with two US employees: John Taylor, a mechanic who allegedly fitted the non-standard strip, and airline chief of maintenance Stanley Ford.
An arrest warrant was issued for Taylor after he failed to show up to be questioned by investigators, and, according to his lawyer, he will not be attending the trial in the court in Pontoise, northwest of Paris.
Taylor’s lawyer declined to say if his client would show up in court.
The former Concorde officials and French aviation boss are also accused of failing to detect and set right faults on the supersonic aircraft, brought to light during the investigation and thought to have contributed to the crash.
Henri Perrier was director of the first Concorde program at Aerospatiale, now part of the EADS group, from 1978 to 1994, while Jacques Herubel was Concorde’s chief engineer from 1993 to 1995.
Both men are accused of ignoring warning signs from a string of incidents on Concorde planes, which during their 27 years of service suffered dozens of tyre blowouts or wheel damage that in several cases pierced the fuel tanks.
Finally Claude Frantzen, director of technical services at the French civil aviation authority DGAC from 1970 to 1994, is accused of overlooking a fault on Concorde’s distinctive delta-shaped wings, which held its fuel tanks.
The trial will seek to pin down the share of responsibility of the US airline, the Concorde and French aviation officials.
Most of the victims’ families agreed not to take legal action in exchange for compensation from Air France, EADS, Continental and the Goodyear tyre manufacturer.
The amount they received has not been made public, but reports said that around $US100 million was shared out among some 700 relatives of the dead.
Throughout the eight-year investigation, Continental pledged to fight any charges in the case.
“Several witnesses have said the fire on the Concorde began when the plane was 800 metres away from the part (metal strip),” said Olivier Metzner, a lawyer for Continental.
To prove this he said he plans to show the court a three-dimensional reconstruction of the crash.
Roland Rappaport, a lawyer for the family of the Concorde pilot Christian Marty, said that “the accident should have been avoided”.
“Concorde’s weaknesses had been known about for more than 20 years,” he said.
A successful prosecution would result in a maximum fine of 375,000 euros for the airline and up to five years in jail and a fine of up to 75,000 euros for the individuals involved.